Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thinking in Pictures

Have you ever noticed how travel changes the way you see? French writer Marcel Proust got it right when he said "The real magic lies not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes". When I was 10 years old, my architect parents sent me on my first big trip. I left the brightly accented, sprawling concrete of Mexico City for a communal farm in Exeter England where I lived with conceptual and performance artist Felipe Ehrenberg. I found myself immersed in a world of new hues, pale whites, grays and greens with vast open spaces. Visiting London was like a book that had come alive and each time I flipped the page it was thrilling. The opportunity to see things outside my life experience changed me. My senses were completely shook up and I began to explore this new visual landscape. I needed to put it all down in my drawings. With Felipe's guidance I learned to use a printing press and produced a handmade journal that blended my adventures and imagination. On that trip I became aware that everyone regardless of their culture or language, experiences a universal set of emotions like joy, sorrow or passion.

Those early encounters shaped me. When painting I associate emotions with both color and texture because they visually tap into our shared feelings and experiences.

Growing up in Mexico I was exposed at an early age to vibrant hues that reached out and grabbed hold of my senses. I remember my childhood as a vivid swirl of color. Babies wrapped in their mother's deep purple rebozos, the bright rosa mexicano pink of tuna cactus fruit ice cream on a hot day. I find myself searching for colors and textures wherever I go and record them in my subconscious or sometimes with a camera. When I close my eyes I see these colors and textures and over the years have invited them into my work.

It's fascinating that healers at St. Jude's Hospital and the American Red Cross use color to enter the world of young people as it helps them connect to the emotions of children in need. I know how lucky I am to paint for kids and I want my illustrations to inspire and challenge them. That connection between color and feelings is basic and profound so there is no need for watered down colors or realism. They are way too smart and don't need us adults to remind them that a bus is yellow or the grass is green. Unlike adults, children are able to keep information from their senses separate and thus perceive the world differently. As we get older our senses fuse together and we lose the ability to focus on isolated pieces of sensory information.

I have found that the most direct route to the emotions of my young audience is quirky, unpredictable, magical color. Children are more likely to trust their emotions and respond to these gutsy colors with fresh eyes. When making children's books I find myself constantly challenged to spend time trying to think the way they do.

For this reason, the search for color is something I take seriously and get very excited about. This is the humble little tiendita in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico where I buy the essential ingredients for my paintings. For years I wondered why my 75 year old mother would take the time to walk to the mercado every day to buy just what she needed for the upcoming meal. Then I realized that the 20 minute walk to go buy the colors I needed for the day was a chance to think about the direction a painting was going.

In my quest for chroma I look for clues in the visual environment and make mental notes. I'm searching for colors and textures that trigger an intuitive, emotional response. I often file these images on my computer or print them out to use when the time is right. I tape them up on the walls of my studio and they illuminate the path I take when creating a book or illustration.

One day I decided to walk a different route through the countryside and came upon this beautiful old abandoned church. The facade confronted my senses and the colors got inside me. The rich textures, warmth of the reds and pinks eventually found their way into the desert scene below.

I am always amused with the way painters try out colors here in Mexico. This indecisive wall really captured my attention and flooded me with mixed emotions.

When asked to create a poster for the San Diego Blues Festival I was inspired to re-visit those colors and textures to convey a romance gone wrong. I've added a woman's face that is like a tattoo across his heart, he rolls the dice and the passion in his voice becomes a green songbird.

The beauty and pageantry of a street procession during Holy Week left a big impression on me. Our town becomes the backdrop for a celebration of centuries old traditions and authentic spirit.

When contemplating beauty my senses were reminded of how the colors and textures moved me in that unforgettable scene. I synthesized them into this painting called Colibri.

At times even the subject matter of a visual reference will directly inform my work. When traveling in Switzerland I wandered into a graveyard behind a castle and saw this wonderful sculpture that struck a visual nerve.

The subject matter and weathered textures of the stone evoked this personal piece I call the Angel of Reason.

The piece below Cuban Dreams was a direct response to the music, colors and textures I saw on a trip to Havana. I have realized the value of building a visual vocabulary by thinking in pictures. Cultivating the spirit of a traveler as I go through life means opening my senses to the emotional cues, colors and textures of the world around me.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Clearing your Cabeza

Hemingway said "There is nothing to writing.
All you do is sit down at your typewriter and bleed".

Here in Mexico I seem to find more time to think about my creative process and work to re-connect with it. I meet many people in my travels who think that an artist can create anytime, anywhere. In my case that couldn't be further from the truth.

Creating the mind space to draw or paint takes discipline. Once you make that commitment to love what you do madly you find a certain freedom. In order to create however you need to be free of whatever is bothering you. We are bombarded by things we feel the need to take care of before we can get down to the really satisfying work of creating. It could be financial issues, relationships, health concerns, or distractions like email. In my opinion one of the most helpful books on this subject is Steven Pressfield's: The War of Art. In this book he talks about RESISTANCE [the phantom that take many forms], the ego, all the internal and external things that impact our work. All the little excuses we make for not doing what we want to do or putting our creative work off till later.

Hemingway was right. I believe defeating those distractions involves rolling up your sleeves and making sure your fingers are covered with paint on a regular basis. It's about making a mark on the paper each day even if you think that mark isn't the best one you've ever made. I've talked about this with musicians, writers and artists and it seems that we all share a common experience.

Now everyone is different. I have found that it helps me to transition to this clear space in my head each day so I can paint. It's something to realize that you are the one responsible for making yourself too busy. It helps to seek out that silence and space and to make it a spiritual practice. I work best early, early in the morning before my family opens their eyes and I choose to run. I like to get out of the city into the country. I know these photos make it look idyllic but I sometimes have to deal with an occasional stray dog at my heels. For me, it is worth the risk as breathing oxygen and tuning into the healing power of nature calms the clutter. This morning I decided to take along a camera to document my efforts to quiet the mind.

When I return, I always draw first as it helps me to think visually, solve problems and find a language to communicate with myself and others. Then it's time to get down to the conceptualizing, sanding, transferring and painting part. I've talked with other creatives who write morning pages popularized in Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way [stream of consciousness writing] to clear the clutter. Deep breathing, meditation, going for a walk or listening to music are some of the techniques I've heard about from friends. I'd like to hear from others about your methods to quiet the mind.

Perhaps one of my all time favorite artists, Charley Harper also found great inspiration from nature. When once asked to describe his art style, he said,

“When I look at a wildlife or nature subject, I don’t see the feathers in the wings, I just count the wings. I see exciting shapes, color combinations, patterns, textures, fascinating behavior and endless possibilities for making interesting pictures. I regard the picture as an ecosystem in which all the elements are interrelated, interdependent, perfectly balanced, without trimming or unutilized parts; and herein lies the lure of painting; in a world of chaos, the picture is one small rectangle in which the artist can create
an ordered universe.”

New video featuring children's books

I've just put together this video that celebrates some of the children's books and community murals I've painted with kids. I shot most of the footage and still imagery here in San Miguel de Allende to connect my illustrations with the vibrant street life that inspires my work. I've also included images I shot on a trip up the stunning California coastline. The lively soundtrack, called "Horsing Around" was written by my close friend Gil Gutierrez who also hails from San Miguel. Thanks for taking the time to watch the video by clicking the link here.